MAN IN THE MOON
(for my dad and the 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing)
MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY
My father was a strange, quiet man, his life a secret, his heart an open book. He never talked about his childhood, losing his dear, loving mama when he was only 8, raised by his older sisters and a grandma who spoke no English. His father watched lovingly over his brood of 7, then 6 as they also lost the new baby sister left in the arms of this mourning father, left alone to be both father and mother. My grandfather concentrated on protecting his kids from the pain of the loss of their mother and the Great Depression, both falling on this wonderful family at once. Evenings sitting huddled up in an armchair or around the kitchen table with mama, listening to her stories of a play or concert she and papa had gone to the evening before or helping her tend her few grape vines winding tenderly up a backyard trellis, were replaced by violin lessons, dancing school and Enrico Caruso blasting on the Victrola.
My father never talked about those days, those years of his youth, barely alluding to his family except on the rare occasion when he would let loose a phrase, a bit of a memory, as if thinking aloud to himself, lost in nostalgia, or as if we knew his life by heart.
Years in the Navy Air Force, flying in the Pacific, years in College and years working at NASA, he was the stereotypical engineer, coming home from work exactly at 6 every evening like clockwork, expecting dinner to be on the table at 6:30, the kids eating silently so he could listen to Walter Cronkite blaring from the other room. Our antics in the back room, ever so creative, would regularly receive a shaking down, a “shut the hell up, I can’t hear the damn tv!” from the living room, and we would respond with gales of laughter. Weekends were spent under the hood of a car or mowing the lawn, except for those years that he attempted to grow tomatoes in the side yard, in the Florida sand, carting in truckloads of manure from the nearest stables, hacking at the dirt and trying to outsmart the moles. He did end up with a fair harvest every year of splotchy tomatoes and strings of red chili peppers that he would hang in the kitchen to dry although he never attempted to cook with them. And he allowed me one row, the row that ran up against the wall, to grow marigolds, which bloomed bright, golden and healthy.
He took us to the public swimming pool behind the high school every weekend in the spring and summer where he taught us how to swim the old-school way (“throw ‘em into the deep end and make sure they make it back to the edge!”) though there were a lot of hugs and a lot of praise. Februaries he would take us to the Pick-Ur-Own strawberry farms and December out to the Orange groves that lined the Indian River and we would lug back brown paper grocery bags filled with navels, tangerines and grapefruit. Evenings would find him back in front of the tv or reading Life magazine in his dark rimmed eyeglasses, weekends listening to Herb Alpert on the stereo.
And every summer we would pack into the old station wagon, the four of us fighting for space on the back seat, never to visit his family but to spend his only 2 free weeks with his in-laws, happy as a bug in a rug knowing he would be spending 2 weeks fixing, repairing and helping. He would throw a few pairs of boxer shorts, a few t-shirts and a change of shorts into a brown paper bag, which he would toss into the trunk of the car and wait for us to climb in. At 5 a.m. While it was still dark and cool. We would then sit patiently in the back seat, once again living through the War of Wills that took place every summer up in the front seat: he wouldn’t start the engine until mom buckled up and she refused adamantly to snap on the seat belt. Then, about 25 minutes later, she buckled up and grumbling under her breath, off we would go, 24 hours with the radio tuned in to the All News All The Time station and the endless, ever-repeating loop of news. Straight through to New York. Dad, the true engineer, could do it all and do it with help from no one. He was the first to believe in safety belts and solar panels, the first to really talk about garden-grown vegetables and healthy eating, the evils of sugar and smoking. And he baked, baked sheet cakes and marble cakes, Bundt cakes and pudding cakes. Bowls and bowls of pudding topped with Cool Whip. Homemade waffles or huge, light-as-air choux puffs filled with pudding or whipped cream. And amazing prune and apricot compote, the fruit glistening like jewels in the syrupy, just perfectly sweet liquid, plump and tender, bursting in your mouth as you wrapped your tongue around each delicate bite. My passion for baking grew each time I watched him mix and pour and pop a special treat into the oven, fascinated by the joy and tenderness he exuded with each delicacy he made for us or for friends or for the synagogue’s Bingo Night. A quiet, tender, loving man, the same man who, every single night of his life as a father, would take us into his arms, one by one, for a kiss and a hug before we were scooted off to bed. A ritual he never ever missed.
And on this 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing, the first Man on the Moon, I send out this note of love to my dad, one of the original 12 research and design engineers of the Space Task Group of the Manned Space Flight Program. He developed the Life Support and Environmental Control Systems for the Manned Flights from the earliest chimpanzee shot through to the beginnings of the Space Shuttle design. He also acted as Environmental Control Director during the Gemini and Mercury Missions. He worked closely with the original astronauts, not only while the system was perfected but training them to control their environment while in orbit. My dad loved his country and was proud to be a part of the Space Program, which he so believed in. He rarely spoke about his work, barely letting comments slip out absent-mindedly, yet we never thought to ask. It was just our normalcy, our everyday life. We knew that as the space ship, each rocket, Mercury, Apollo or other, was standing proudly on the launch pad, rumbling and seething and raring to go, he would take those few seconds away from Mission Control to call us at home – the phone would ring, someone would pick it up and hear his voice “Get out in the backyard. Now.” – and we’d grab the binoculars and out we would run to watch the take off in the distance, the rocket shooting skyward, its smooth, sleek body roaring heavenwards, the stages dropping off, one-two-three, and then we would sigh, the excitement over, and run back into the house to sit in front of the tv and watch the rest until it was out of sight. Then we would return to play or to our books and wait for 6 o’clock when he would come back from work for another evening at home.
My dad is now up there in the skies, watching us, and I like to think that I see him smiling down on me each time I stare at the moon and I shiver and my head spins and then I turn away and get on with my life.